Downriver by Iain Sinclair Greatest Welsh Novel

Downriver by Iain Sinclair | Greatest Welsh Novel

Steven Hitchins puts forward his case for Downriver by Iain Sinclair as an unlikely candidate for the Greatest Welsh Novel.

Downriver is a novel about London. The author, Iain Sinclair, is not usually thought of as a Welsh writer; though born in Cardiff and brought up in Maesteg, he has lived in London since the late-1960s and become known as a London writer. But I want to suggest that Sinclair and his novel Downriver demonstrate a Welshness that is nomadic and not fixed by national boundaries. ‘My father was Scottish,’ Sinclair writes, ‘– which is not to say that he didn’t feel at home in Wales. Scottishness is the condition of feeling comfortable everywhere, except within the borders of Scotland.’ Sinclair apparently had his Welsh accent teased out of him when he attended Cheltenham College in the 1950s. ‘I had a comic Welsh accent,’ he said in an interview, ‘so I was aware of a double life – of subverting what I was.’ Sinclair’s Welshness is characterised by this duality; it is something he subverts. Welshness is defined in its relation to the other, often depicted as the enemy. Sinclair’s double identity makes him his own ‘other’, a stranger to himself. Sinclair is ‘on the move from one other to another other,’ as Pierre Joris puts it in A Nomad Poetics. Downriver might then be thought of as what Joris refers to as ‘The practice of outside’: the Welsh novel outside Wales.

Sinclair’s baroque, grotesque style absorbs Welsh literature by a nomadic route: tapping into Dylan Thomas via Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, Welsh writing filtered back through America. ‘Ginsberg was very drawn to the apocalyptic, deep rumbling resonance of Dylan Thomas,’ he says, ‘and I knew its relationship to chapel sermonising and natural Welsh speech rhythms. I could feel how Thomas’s work had been appropriated by the Beats, while knowing the thing itself. And so I took on both.’ Thomas himself drew on Rimbaud and Joyce for his anglo-cynghanedd and found fame in the US. This nomadic Welsh lineage offers an alternative to the usual static nation-based notions of literary heritage.

While the novel can be seen as nomadic, there is a sense that, as Joris might say, the deterritorialised re-territorialise: Sinclair makes East London his territory. The novel begins with the character Milditch about to move out of Hackney: ‘Milditch, up to now, had kept his life in separate compartments. But, with the move out of Hackney, everything was coming to pieces’. Sinclair, by contrast, is one of those who ‘cling so stubbornly to the cities’, possessed with ‘the bloody-mindedness of hanging on’. There is a sense of rooting in.

But unlike many of his Anglo-Welsh peers, Sinclair’s interest in place is not concerned with a nostalgic return to roots. His exploration of place, from his early poetry onwards, has been closer to the psychogeographical dérive of the Situationists. The dérive, meaning ‘drift’, was recommended by Guy Debord as the practice of navigating the city without purpose. It enables the walker to step out of the familiarity and complacency bred by routine, to defamiliarise their locality in order to recognise it as a historical construct rather than something natural and eternal.

Downriver is relentlessly peripatetic, taking place almost entirely on foot, on public transport or in public spaces. The novel’s geography gravitates around the area of Hackney, Homerton, Spitalfields and Bow, moving towards the river through Wapping and Shadwell across to Rotherhithe, then following the river East past the Isle of Dogs, Silvertown and Tilbury, out into the estuary and the Isle of Sheppey. This is complicated by a couple of excursions into the suburbs, one North to Leyton and another South to Orpington. It does not follow this route in a linear trajectory but jumps back and forth. As readers we conduct our own dérive, mapping and remapping the book as we attempt to navigate its shifting terrain. We too give ourselves up to the drift.

As well as psychogeography, Downriver adapts the methods of modernist poetry and conceptual art to the novel. It might be thought of as an ‘open field’ novel. Sinclair’s early poetry works from the 1970s, such as Lud Heat, are composed in the open field style promoted by Black Mountain poets like Charles Olson. Often taking place as its subject, open field poetry allows the poem to incorporate any material with which it comes into contact. Lud Heat, for example, takes East London as its focus and juxtaposes poetry and prose, including discussions of churches, sculpture, film and hay fever alongside descriptions of Sinclair’s home-life and his job as a council grass-cutter. While Downriver sticks more consistently to the novel form, its chapters are often only tenuously connected, allowing the book to move between realism, satire, history, fantasy, documentary, dream, letters and even an interview.

Like much conceptual art, the novel is process-based; like the walks of Richard Long or Vito Acconci’s ‘Following Piece’, for example, it is a process that develops overtime. Rather than beginning with a plan or synopsis before writing the novel, Sinclair sets himself a task, a certain geographical area to cover, a certain time frame. He doesn’t know what will happen in the novel when he begins. The meeting with the book-dealer Milditch in the first chapter ends with the narrator deciding to follow up the tip-off about a book shop in Tilbury, only because ‘I had the queasy sensation there ought to be a story in it’. From then on, Sinclair gives himself up to the process, allowing the novel to be steered by chance encounters. By the third book, he has abandoned the idea of a ‘Spitalfields’ novel to pursue a fantastical story about a dancer-nurse-prostitute named Edith Cadiz:

We no longer believed in ‘Spitalfields’ as a concept… We had something much better: a story we didn’t understand. It is always more enjoyable to play at detectives than at ‘researchers’, who gather the evidence to justify the synopsis they have already sold.

What makes the novel equally baffling and compelling seems to be that Sinclair is a detective who gathers evidence without knowing exactly what the crime is yet. Though a process-based way of working is acceptable in modern art,and to some extent poetry, it is incomprehensible to the TV producers and book publishers to whom Sinclair pitches his ideas: ‘how could we write anything down before we knew what was going to happen? And if we didn’t write it down, so that it could be approved by three producers and a finance watchdog, then nothing would happen… ever’; and later in a rejection letter from Granta, ‘Pencilled comments speared the margins: … “Who is ‘I’?”’. It satirises the deep-rooted belief in the hierarchical top-down approach to art, where the writer is expected to know what will happen before it happens, so that it can be approved, so that accidents don’t happen. Sinclair’s work, by contrast, relies on accidents: you set something up and something will happen. While his practice is about letting go of the ego, control, conscious intentions, the culture industry is concerned to maintain static models of identity.

I would suggest, however,that Sinclair’s methods of process, dérive and open field juxtaposition are entirely appropriate for the nomadic Welsh novel. It is a Welsh novel that is not bound by borders, whether of nation, identity or form. A synopsis, like national identity, is a way of fixing something in place, rather than allowing it to be ongoing and always in process. Sinclair walks to lose himself, to break the bonds of territory and identity, to be, as Joris puts it, ‘everywhere estranged’.

Notions of displaced identity are not simply promoted as desirable, however. Many of the novel’s characters are exiled figures experiencing a breakdown of identity: there are stories of colonial subjects like Prince Lee Boo and King Cole, and contemporary characters like the Nigerian antiques dealer Iddo Okali, the Canadian Edith Cadiz and the Polish Jew David Rodinsky. Colonialism is a theme that runs through the novel: in the dilapidated imperial nostalgia of the Tilbury docklands where the novel begins and ends, and in there current references to Joseph Conrad and his Heart of Darkness. ‘And this too was one of the dark places of the earth,’ Sinclair quotes as he looks out over Essex. And it still is, Downriver suggests, as the colonialist ransacking of Thatcherite neoliberal capitalism continues to displace communities in its fervour for development opportunities and enterprise ventures.

Sinclair himself might be thought of as a product of colonialism. The Welsh-language writer Bobi Jones once referred to Anglo-Welsh writing as the ‘colonialist predicament’, calling it ‘a perversion of normality… a grunt or a cry or an odour rising from a cultural wound of a special kind’. Whereas Jones feels that Welsh people speaking English is a colonial perversion and advocates a return to the ‘normality’ of the native Welsh, Sinclair is more interested in exploring the nomadic situation between Welsh and English, of being both Welsh and English. As Jeremy Hooker writes of Tony Conran, ‘it is clear that he thinks it is better for a writer to respond to the pain inflicted by living on the March [border, frontier] than to rest in complacency on either side of it’. Rather than trying to return to some original sense of roots, as if the colonial displacement hadn’t happened, Sinclair explores the nomadic situation of the postcolonial subject, a permanent exile, always outside or between.

This is reflected in the style of Downriver: rather than think of the author as a single, coherent identity who plans what will happen in the novel and then writes it, Sinclair writes as an outsider with unstable, plural identity who gives himself up to the always moving drift of nomadism, so that the drifting becomes the novel.

This is why I want to propose Downriver as a great Welsh novel. On the back cover of my Penguin edition there is a quote from Don Anderson from the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Not just a great novel, it’s the first novel of the twenty-first century.’ Written at the end of the Thatcher era and published in the last decade of the previous century, Downriver points a way for the Welsh novel in the current century. Though set in London, it is in a sense about Wales: within the capital it conducts a psychogeographical interrogation of the neo-colonial forces that had torn apart communities in Wales and throughout the UK. In this sense Downriver can be called a Welsh novel, the Welsh novel outside Wales, writing about Wales by a ‘practice of outside’. And in its methods of process, dérive and open field, it offers a mobile model for the Welsh novel of the twenty-first century, the tools for a nomadic Welsh novel that can deal with a globalised world.


This piece is a part of Wales Arts Review’s Greatest Welsh Novel’ series.